Review of Roger Caillois’ “Man, Play, and Games”

There are several books which form the foundation of modern ludic theory, one of which is Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (previously reviewed), the other being Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, and Games. I recently finished the latter book, and here is why it is still relevant in some places (and not so in others).

To begin, Caillois is building off Huizinga’s work, where he established that play is a central part of human culture and society and produces the creative instinct by which progress is made. Rather than being mere frivolity, play creates art, science, and culture. Caillois expands the concept of play by dividing it up into a table composed of the play categories agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (simulation), and ilinx (vertigo) and by the degrees of paidea (freeform, spontaneous play) and ludus (rule-based, structured play). These six concepts are important to our understanding of play and games, though today the ideas are more greatly refined.

Agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx are all distilled forms of play. Agon is the struggle, the contest between two or more opponents to see who is better. Alea is passive reliance on chance, awaiting the throw of the die or roulette. Mimicry is the use of masks, of acting, of ‘playing at’ being someone else. Ilinx is the sensation of bodily movement, of dance and spinning, and of the roller coaster. Many games contain elements of more than one category (a game of Magic: The Gathering is based on the luck of the draw as well as the skills of the players) and even a supposedly ‘pure’ activity may be found to contain other elements (a player at dice will attempt to do anything in his power, any strategy to help ensure success rather than simply doing nothing). Paidea and ludus are also important in the study of rule-based games and ‘sandbox’ games like Sim-City (Gonzalo Frasca’s Ludology Meets Narratology is an excellent companion piece).

However, Caillois’ ideas become more controversial as he begins to apply them to the operations of society, and more importantly, to the evolution of human culture from primitive to civilized. Unlike Huizinga, who uses his descriptions of culture ot illustrate examples of games and play as being central to the operation of culture and civilization, Caillois uses them to define the natures of different cultures, with a clearly insensitive ethnocentric approach (though it’s not like Huizinga wasn’t ethnocentric either). While Caillois’s examples are fascinating (though not in as much detail as Huizinga’s), his attempts ot define cultures seem biased towards his concept of his own culture’s superiority. For instance, I doubt he would deign to apply his methods of analysis of masks and the bull roarer and their relation to mimicry and ilinx towards Christianity (he does not even discuss the subject).

The deepest error is his firm statements that the ‘primitive’ knows deep inside that the mask is a lie. It is akin to stating that the Catholic ‘knows deep down inside’ that the holy sacrament is not in truth the blood and body of Christ but merely wine. Indeed, it is spiritually so through the sense of allegory. The same is true of the mask. the mask and its representation of a god or spirit is serious business (and not simply because death and violence can result from its revelation to the uninitiated). The mask is truth, a representation of the spiritual, the intangible, even though there is really a mortal behind it. It simply operates under a different logical system than the visible and tangible – which is not to mean that the logical system of native culture is inferior to that of Western culture, but merely that this logic system is in its own respects incompatible with that of Western civilization, though some of its elements may be crucial to the nature of humanity.

As a result, I can’t highly recommend more than the first few chapters of the book, the two most important ones (the first two, covering agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx as well as ludus and paidea) of which are reproduced in Salen and Zimmerman’s excellent Rules of Play Reader. I can recommend the first six chapters or so (the first four are the true meat of the book) as well as the second appendix, but I place the others at suspect. The second appendix is important for its descriptions of the history of game studies up until that time and also his debunking and criticism of some previous work on the subject.

Overall, Caillois is still relevant today, and the interplay of agon, alea, ilinx, and mimicry is still important to our fundamental understanding of games and play, though ultimately some of his work is dated and in other places better refined through modern ludic theory.

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